Past Events – Symmetries and Explanation Workshop, 6 Mar 2020

On Friday 06 March 2020, FraMEPhys hosted a one-day workshop at the Univeristy of Birmingham ERI G51. Here is the original poster.


  • Adam Caulton (Oxford)
  • Niels Linnemann (Bremen)
  • Michael Townsen Hicks (Birmingham)
  • Marc Lange (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)


1000-1115: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?” Adam Caulton, University of Oxford
Abstract: Ever since investigations into the group representation theory of spacetime symmetries, chiefly due to Wigner and Bargmann in the 1930s and ‘40s, it has become something of a mantra in particle physics that a particle is an irreducible representation of the Poincaré group (the symmetry group of Minkowski spacetime). Call this ‘Wigner’s identification’. One may ask, in a philosophical spirit, whether Wigner’s identification could serve as something like a real definition (as opposed to a nominal definition) of ‘particle’—at least for the purposes of relativistic quantum field theory. In this talk, I aim to show that, while Wigner’s identification is materially adequate for many purposes—principally scattering theory—it does not provide a serviceable definition. The main problem, or so I shall argue, is that the regime of legitimate particle talk surpasses the constraints put on it by Wigner’s identification. I aim further to show that, at least in the case of particles with mass, a promising rival definition is available. This promising rival emerges from investigations due to Foldy in the 1950s, which I will outline. The broad upshot is that the definition of ‘particle’ may well be the same in both the relativistic and non-relativistic contexts, and draws upon not the Poincaré group (or any other spacetime symmetry group) but rather the familiar Heisenberg relations.

Adam Caulton: “Are Particles Characterised by a Symmetry Group? If So, Which One?”

1115-1230: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics.” Niels Linnemann, University of Bremen
Abstract: How does metaphysical necessity relate to the modal force often associated with natural laws (natural necessity)? Fine (2002) argues that natural necessity can neither be obtained from metaphysical necessity via forms of restriction nor of relativization — and therefore pleads for modal pluralism concerning natural and metaphysical necessity. Wolff (2013) aims at providing illustrative examples in support of applying Fine’s view to the laws of nature with specific recourse to the laws of physics: On the one hand, Wolff takes it that equations of motion can count as examples of physical laws that are only naturally but not metaphysically necessary. On the other hand, Wolff argues that a certain conservation law obtainable via Noether’s second theorem is an instance of a metaphysically necessary physical law. I show how Wolff’s example for a putatively metaphysically necessary conservation law fails but argue that so-called topological currents can nevertheless count as metaphysically necessary conservation laws carrying physical content. I conclude with a remark on employing physics to answer questions in metaphysics.

Niels Linnemann: “On Metaphysically Necessary Laws from Physics”

1400-1515: “Are Symmetry Explanations Grounding Explanations?” Mike Hicks, University of Birmingham. PowerPoint Slides
Abstract: I aim to show that there are two sorts of symmetry explanations that are plausibly regarded as grounding explanations. The first is the explanation of symmetry principles in terms of spacetime or property structure. I will argue that symmetry principles, which are constraints on the laws, are plausibly grounded in spacetime structure. The second is the explanation of conservation laws via symmetry principles. I will argue that symmetry principles ground conservation laws.

1530-1700: “What Was the ‘Great Advance’ of 20th-Century Physics that ‘Put Symmetry First’?” Marc Lange, UNC Chapel Hill
Abstract: I will characterize the difference between the way that symmetry principles and conservation laws were generally understood before and after the great revolutions of early 20th-century physics. I will elaborate this difference in terms of explanatory priority, modal status, and counterfactual resilience. Any account of natural law, natural necessity, and scientific explanation should leave room for symmetry principles and conservation laws to play either their pre-revolutionary role or their post-revolutionary role.

FraMEPhys/MetaScience Workshop, Dec 2019

On 9 December 2019, FraMEPhys and the MetaScience project jointly hosted a one-day workshop at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.


  • Alexander Franklin
  • Katie Robertson
  • Michael Townsen Hicks
  • Toby Friend
  • Vanessa Seifert


09:15 – Registration

09:30 – Welcome

09:40 – Alexander Franklin: “How to be a Bohmian Reductionist”
Abstract: While advocates of Bohmian mechanics generally evince reductionism, it’s far from clear how to make those two positions compatible. The core issue is that reductive explanations of the kind ubiquitous in science require reference not just to particle positions but also to features only found in the pilot wave. However, the pilot wave is generally interpreted as a non-local field, law, or universal disposition. As such, reductive explanations of, say, the hardness of a table essentially refer to entities which are not localised to any subregion of the universe. The Bohmian is thus faced with a dilemma: either they should embrace radical holism or they should engage with the project of articulating an ontology of effectively localised wavefunctions. I suggest ways in which this latter project may be developed, but note significant technical and conceptual challenges. I conclude by arguing that both horns of the dilemma render Bohmian mechanics rather less intuitive than is claimed by Bohmian reductionists.

10:40 – Coffee Break

10:55 – Katie Robertson: “Reduction, Abstraction and Approximation”
Abstract: There is a common distinction between two types of reduction: (i) horizontal reduction: the reduction of an older theory to its successor, and (ii) vertical reduction: the reduction of a higher-level, or macroscopic, theory to an underlying microscopic theory. Each has different philosophical consequences. Horizontal reduction is important for continuity over theory change, and thus is key to the scientific realism debate, whereas vertical reduction has metaphysical consequences. But it is not always obvious how, or indeed whether, the two types of reduction can be distinguished. In this paper, I give an account of the distinction in terms of subject matters. In the case of horizontal reduction, the two theories describe the same subject matter, although the successor theory will be more accurate. Consequently, the older theory approximates the successor theory. In contrast, in the case of vertical reduction, the two theories describe different subject matters — it is not the case that one theory is more accurate than the other, since each theory answers different questions. In particular, the higher-level theory abstracts away from details described by the lower-level theory. Having made the distinction between vertical and horizontal reduction in terms of abstraction and approximation, I then discuss other views’ in the literature, and the dangers of failing to distinguish between abstraction and approximation. On the one hand, Strevens’ treats all approximation as abstraction, but this view fails to respect scientific practice: often scientists want to remove approximations, if possible. On the other hand, treating all abstraction as approximation results in treating all special sciences as an inferior handle on a fundamental description, and thus fails to respect the explanatory value of the special sciences.

12:00 – Toby Friend: “Indeterministic Compositional Emergence”
Abstract: I show that if there exists genuinely indeterminately composed objects then there will exist many cases of emergence which are strongly emergent whilst remaining consistent with physicalism. These cases threaten two common assumptions: that strong emergence occurs, if at all, only in rare cases, and that strong emergence is inconsistent with physicalism. I present a relatively mundane example involving sections composed from a row of coloured dominoes. Granting that these sections are genuinely indeterminately composed, it is straightforward to show they have causally novel features with respect to the directness of their causal powers. This, I argue, is sufficient for strong emergence, as it is defined within the powers-framework. The example also demonstrates how strongly emergent features can avoid ‘collapse’ into their base features despite being nomologically dependent on them, all the while remaining consistent with physicalism. I finally show how this proof of strong emergence can be applied to another more weighty case: that of the mind’s emergence from the physical. I question whether the ease with which strong emergence is proven reflects poorly on the powers-framework.

13:00 – Lunch 

14:30 – Michael Townsen Hicks: “Symmetries, Explanation, and the Metaphysics of Laws”
Abstract: Symmetry principles are regarded by many physicists as among the deepest and most explanatory physical principles. Noether’s first theorem and its inverse tell us that for every variational symmetry of a Lagrangian, there is a corresponding conserved quantity, and for every conserved quantity in a Lagrangian system, there is a corresponding variational symmetry. Many physicists and philosophers of physics have taken this to mean that symmetries explain conservation laws. But how does this explanation work? I’ll present two currently prominent views, criticize them, and argue for a third. First, Brown and Holland (2005) have argued that the symmetries don’t explain the conservation laws at all. Rather, they hold the conservation laws and the symmetries are both a result of the underlying Lagrangian dynamics. Second, Marc Lange (2007, 2009) has argued that the symmetry principles are higher-order laws that govern the first-order dynamical laws. On Lange’s view, the symmetry principles explain by governing: the relationship between symmetries and conservation laws is similar to the relationship between dynamical laws and the corresponding particular events they govern. Finally, I will argue that the symmetry principles explain the conservation laws by partially grounding them: the symmetry principles describe a more fundamental level of spatio-temporal structure than the conservation laws, and so the explanation goes via metaphysical dependence. After presenting these views, I’ll argue that Brown’s dynamics-first view fails to appreciate evidence for metaphysical dependence, and that Lange’s governing view is mistaken to take the symmetry principles to be higher-order. I’ll conclude by considering a counterexample to the claim that the symmetries explain dynamical facts by grounding them: Parity is not a symmetry of the laws dynamics, but this dynamic asymmetry arguably isn’t grounded in a spatiotemporal asymmetry.

15:30 – Coffee Break

15:45 – Vanessa Seifert: “The Chemical Bond as a Real Pattern”
Abstract: A central concept which is invoked in chemistry and in quantum chemistry in order to describe the structure of a molecule is the chemical bond. Given this, a pressing philosophical question is whether the chemical bond exists and what sort of thing it is. This question is primarily discussed in the context of Hendry’s distinction between the structural and the energetic conception of the chemical bond. The structural conception takes chemical bonds to be ‘material parts of the molecule that are responsible for spatially localized submolecular relationships between individual atomic centers’ (Hendry 2006: 917). The structural conception is taken as supporting an understanding of chemical bonds as entities. The energetic conception takes ‘chemical bonding’ to signify ‘facts about energy changes between molecular or supermolecular states’ (Hendry 2006: 919). The energetic conception remains agnostic as to whether the chemical bond is an entity (or as to whether it even exists) and it is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as properties of a molecule. The metaphysical interpretation of each conception allegedly creates a tension between the two conceptions because the former is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as entities, whereas the latter is consistent with an understanding of chemical bonds as either fictional entities, or real properties of molecules. I argue that this tension can be resolved in a manner that supports the reality of chemical bonds. Specifically, if one takes the two conceptions as representing distinct yet incomplete intensions of the same referent (i.e. the chemical bond), then both conceptions can be invoked to mutually support an understanding of chemical bonds as patterns within a molecule. Such an understanding of chemical bonds is also supported by how chemistry and quantum chemistry each describe and pictorially represent chemical bonds. Several questions need to be addressed in order to sufficiently support the reality of chemical bonds as patterns. First, if a chemical bond refers to a pattern within molecules, then what is it a pattern of? Secondly, assuming that chemical bonds are patterns, what is the respective ‘noise’ in the chemical and quantum chemical descriptions of a chemical bond, and what is the role of ‘noise’ in predicting a molecule’s structure? Thirdly, is there sufficient empirical evidence to support that the elements of this pattern are real and not merely apparent? I examine these questions in light of the literature on real patterns and briefly outline the advantages of understanding chemical bonds as real patterns. Examining the nature and reality of chemical bonds in the context of the literature on real patterns provides a novel perspective through which one can understand the nature of the chemical bond, but also through which one can reevaluate the tenability of structural realist accounts in the philosophy of science.
References: Hendry R.F., 2006, ‘Two Conceptions of the Chemical Bond’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 909-920

16:45 – Close

Workshop on Grounding and the Laws of Nature, Jun 2019

On 4-5 June 2019, the FraMEPhys project hosted a two-day international workshop on Grounding and the Laws of Nature at the University of Birmingham.

The day before the workshop, 3 June, we hosted Mark Pexton (Durham) to talk about “Contextuality, Emergence and Unification in Physics” as part of the FraMEPhys Seminar series.

Tuesday 4th June

09.15 – 10.30
Michael Hicks (Köln): “Contrastivism and Explanation”
Comments: Vera Matarese (Czech Academy of Sciences)

Many philosophers hold that explanation is contrastive: A’s explaining B consists in A rather than A’ (some other option A is contrasted with) explaining B rather than B’. We explain why we went to the store partially by showing why we didn’t stay home; the relevant contrast (staying home) helps determine what’s a suitable explanation. In this paper, I’ll show how contrastivism about explanation connects to current debates about the explanatory power of laws. Some philosophers, most prominently Skow, hold that the laws do not explain first-order events, but instead ground explanatory relations. By carefully examining the relevant contrasts in these meta-explanations, I’ll argue that the truth of the laws is not a part of the explanans. I’ll then connect this conclusion to circularity worries around Humean laws.

10.45 – 12.00
Erica Shumener (Pittsburgh): “Governance and Necessitation”
Abstract: In this paper, I offer a new account of what it is for the laws of nature to govern. I argue that deterministic laws govern when they (along with initial conditions) productively necessitate which events occur. I define productive necessitation, and I argue that this account of governance can capture what it means for the laws of nature to guide or direct the evolution of events. Finally, I maintain that once we understand governance in the way I suggest, we can understand why it is important for the laws of nature to govern: the laws must govern in order to have explanatory power.

12.15 – 13.30
Zee Perry (Colorado): “Nothing in the Rule Book Says a Dog Can’t Play Basketball”

13.30 – 14.30

14.30 – 15.45
Nina Emery (Mt. Holyoke): “The Governing Conception of Laws”
Comments: Henry Taylor (Birmingham)
Abstract: In her paper, “The Non-Governing Conception of Laws,” Helen Beebee argues that it is not a conceptual truth that laws of nature govern their instances, and that this fact insulates Humeans about laws of nature from some of the most pressing objections against that view. I agree with the first claim, but not the second. For although it is not a conceptual truth that laws govern, the view that laws govern follows straightforwardly from an important, though under-appreciated, principle that constrains scientific theory choice, and the principles that constrain scientific theory choice ought to constrain theory choice in metaphysics as well. I then show how the specific understanding of governance that plays a role in this argument raises serious concerns for Humeans about laws of nature.

16.00 – 17.15
Alastair Wilson (Birmingham): “Counterpossible Reasoning in Physics”
This talk explores three ways in which physics may involve us in counterpossible reasoning: by assessing the consequences of impossible theories, by invoking impossible interventions in the characterization of causal structure and by invoking impossible interventions in the characterization of grounding structure. It is argued that while the first role is dispensable, the latter two roles present a substantial challenge to necessitarian accounts of laws. A framework of impossible worlds provides one potential response to the challenge.

17.00 – 22.00
Dinner at Cherry Reds

Wednesday 5th June

09.15 – 10.30
Tuomas Tahko (Bristol): “Laws of Metaphysics for Essentialists”
Abstract: There is a line of thought gathering momentum which suggests that just like causal laws govern causation, there needs to be something in metaphysics that governs metaphysical relations. Such ‘laws of metaphysics’ would be counterfactual-supporting general principles that are responsible for the explanatory force of metaphysical explanations. There are various suggestions about how such principles could be understood. They could be based on what Kelly Trogdon calls grounding-mechanical explanations, where the role that grounding mechanisms play in certain metaphysical explanations mirrors the role that causal mechanisms play in certain scientific explanations. Another approach, by Jonathan Schaffer, claims to be neutral regarding grounding or essences (although he does commit to the idea that metaphysical explanation is ‘backed’ by grounding relations). In this paper I will assess these suggestions and argue that for those willing to invoke essences, there is a more promising route available: the unificatory role of metaphysical explanation may be accounted for in terms of natural kind essences.

10.45 – 12.00
John Roberts (North Carolina): “Laws of Nature and Effectiveness of Methods: Who Grounds Whom?”

12.15 – 13.30
Harjit Bhogal (Maryland): “Two Conceptions of Explanation and the “Postmodal” Approach to Metaphysics”
Comments: Dan Marshall (Lingnan)
Abstract: Imagine we see three ravens and we notice something interesting — they are all black. This pattern needs an explanation. If we then see ten ravens that are all black this needs explaining even more — increasing the generality of the pattern just increases the need for explanation. So if we find out that all ravens are black this pattern needs explaining even more. And if we find out that in all possible worlds all ravens are black — that is, necessarily all ravens are black — this needs explaining yet more! So, such modal facts need explaining, presumably by postmodal facts, like ground or essence. (Unless we have a pattern subsumption view of explanation, in which case things are more complicated.) 

13.30 – 15.00
Lunch and finish

Workshop, April 3 2019: Levels of Explanation

On 3 April 2019, the FraMEPhys project hosted a one-day workshop on Levels of Explanation at the University of Birmingham. Any queries concerning this event can be directed to .


9.00-9.30 – Coffee and pastries

9.30-10.30 – David Yates (Lisbon), “Multilevel explanations and the causal completeness of the physical”

The causal closure of the physical poses a familiar causal exclusion problem for the special sciences: special science properties are distinct from their physical realizers, but if the physical domain is causally closed, then what causal work is left for such properties to do? In this talk, I begin by making explicit a widely held assumption relating causal closure and causal explanation, viz. that causal closure entails causal-explanatory closure. I then suggest that there are irreducibly multilevel explanations in physics, involving both basic physical properties and multiply realizable higher-level properties. Such explanations violate the causal-explanatory closure of the basic physical domain, so either the basic physical domain is not causally closed, or causal closure does not entail causal-explanatory closure. This in turn depends on how the closure principle is formulated, in particular on how we elucidate the claim that basic physical properties do all the causal work required to bring about basic physical effects. I argue that on a reasonable powers-based closure principle, the causal closure of the basic physical domain is consistent with a form of downward causation in which higher-level properties act as irreducible constraints on the manifestation of basic physical powers. This kind of closure principle does not entail causal-explanatory closure, and poses no problem of causal exclusion for the special sciences.

10.30-11.30 – Karen Crowther (Geneva), “Levels of Fundamentality in the Metaphysics of Physics”

Judging by how physicists use the term, there are many different conceptions of what it means for a physical theory to be ‘fundamental’. Yet, it has been argued that none of these imply metaphysical fundamentality. Here, I argue that there is a plausible sense of relative fundamentality in physics that corresponds to a fairly standard conception of relative fundamentality according to metaphysics. I discuss what the implications of this are for our understanding of ‘levels’ of fundamentality and explanation.

11.30- 12.00 – Break

12.00-1.00 – Christian List (LSE), “Levels: Descriptive, Explanatory, and Ontological”

Scientists and philosophers frequently speak about levels of description, levels of explanation, and ontological levels. In this paper, I propose a unified framework for modelling levels. I give a general definition of a system of levels and show that it can accommodate descriptive, explanatory, and ontological notions of levels. I further illustrate the usefulness of this framework by applying it to some salient philosophical questions: (1) Is there a linear hierarchy of levels, with a fundamental level at the bottom? And what does the answer to this question imply for physicalism, the thesis that everything supervenes on the physical? (2) Are there emergent properties? (3) Are higher-level descriptions reducible to lower-level ones? (4) Can the relationship between normative and non-normative domains be viewed as one involving levels? Although I use the terminology of “levels”, the proposed framework can also represent “scales”, “domains”, or “subject matters”, where these are not linearly but only partially ordered by relations of supervenience or inclusion.

1.00-2.00 – Lunch

2.00-3.00 – Lina Jansson (Nottingham), “Selection of Explanatory ‘Grain’: How to Favour the General but not the Disjunctive”

On the one hand, we seem to value generality in explanations. On the other hand, we seem to disvalue disjunctive explanantia. This raises the challenge of spelling out how exactly we settle the right level of explanatory generality. In this article I suggest how we can do so in a way that avoids endorsing disjunctive explanantia from within an epistemic account of explanation focused on providing dependence information.

3.00-4.00 – Eleanor Knox (King’s), ” From Abstraction to Explanation to Levels: some thoughts”

This talk explores the prospects for extending an account of emergence based on explanatory novelty (Knox 2016, Knox and Franklin, 2018) to an account of levels. I examine in particular whether we can see this view as a matter of metaphysics and hence as offering an account of ontological levels. I conclude that, as long we don’t expect too much from our levels, the prospects for an account of levels centred on the Knox-Franklin view on emergence look good.

4.00-4.30 – Break

4.30-5.30 – Alex Franklin (King’s/Bristol), “How do levels emerge?”

Science describes the world at a number of different levels, but questions remain over how such levels are constituted. In this paper, I offer an account of levels which allows higher levels to be both emergent from and reducible to lower levels. I argue that two descriptions of the world are at different levels if one is autonomous from the other: that implies that prediction and explanation at the higher level may proceed without reference to details required for lower-level descriptions. Following Franklin and Knox (2018), I claim that higher levels are emergent if they also give rise to novel explanations. I further claim that a level is reducible if we are able to explain its autonomy from the bottom up. One feature of my account is that the instantiation of levels depends on context: this has the upshot that top-down causation is ruled out. I explore this consequence with reference to Mitchell (2012).

7.00 – Dinner at Cherry Reds

2019 Conference: Metaphysical Explanation in Science

The FraMEPhys project at the University of Birmingham and the Metaphysical Explanation project at the University of Gothenburg hosted a two-day conference on Metaphysical Explanation in Science on 10-11 January 2019 at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Podcasts of selected talks are coming soon!

Thursday 10 January 2019

  • 09:10 – Coffee and pastries
  • 09:30 – Elanor Taylor (Johns Hopkins), “Backing without Realism”. Comments: Naomi Thompson (Southampton/Gothenburg)
  • 10:45 – Coffee
  • 11:00 – Juha Saatsi (Leeds), “Which explanations in science are “metaphysical” (and why)?”. Comments: Robin Stenwall (Lund)
  • 12:15 – Lunch
  • 13:30 – Silvia Bianchi (Pavia), “Metaphysical Grounding as a Non-foundationalist Explanation of Quantum Entanglement: on the Plausibility of Weak Structuralism and Thin Objects”. Comments: Joaquim Giannotti (Glasgow)
  • 14:45 – Break
  • 14:55 – Roberto Fumagalli (King’s College London), “How Thin Rational Choice Theory Explains Choices”. Comments: Adam Bales (Cambridge)
  • 16:10 – Tea
  • 16:30 – Michael Strevens (NYU), “Necessity in Scientific Explanation”
  • 17:45 – Finish
  • 18:45 – Dinner

Friday 11 January 2019

  • 09:10 – Coffee and pastries
  • 09:30 – Stephan Leuenberger (Glasgow), “Merely partial metaphysical explanation”. Comments: Anna-Sofia Maurin (Gothenburg)
  • 10:45 – Coffee
  • 11:00 – Amanda Bryant (Trent), “Toward a Scientifically Responsible Metaphysics of Ground”. Comments: Ashton Green (Notre Dame)
  • 12:15 – Lunch
  • 13:30 – David Kovacs (Tel Aviv), “The Problem of Meta-Causation”. Comments: Andrew Brenner (Gothenburg)
  • 14:45 – Break
  • 14:55 – Atoosa Kasirzadeh (Toronto), “Can Mathematics Really Make a Difference?” Comments: Samuel Kimpton-Nye (King’s College London)
  • 16:10 – Tea
  • 16:30 – Samuel Baron (Western Australia), “Counterfactual Scheming”. Comments: Martin Glazier (Hamburg).
  • 17:45 – Finish